This week’s sixth anniversary of the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi that left more than 70 dead and hundreds more injured, comes at an uncertain time for the future of peace enforcement operations in Somalia.
When four masked gunmen forced their way into the shopping complex on the afternoon of Saturday, September 21, 2013, the attack was almost immediately claimed by the Somalia-based terror group Al Shabaab.
It was one of those revenge operations which the group blamed on Kenya’s involvement in Amisom, the African Union-led intervention in Somalia.
The Westgate strike has since been followed by at least three major attacks on Kenyan soil that are ostensibly aimed at forcing Nairobi to reconsider its involvement. One of those was the January 2019 strike on the Dusit2 Hotel and office complex also in Nairobi, in which 21 lives were lost.
Before that there had been the April 2015 attack on Garissa University in which 150 student were killed and the June 2014 raid in Mpeketoni whose tragic toll reached 60.
The random, if deadly attacks, so far from Somalia reflect both the success and residual challenges for Amisom in Somalia.
If the massive operation managed to dislodge Al-Shabaab from its footholds in Somalia’s major population centres, it has not quite succeeded in annihilating the group.
Al-Shabaab has fragmented into a more intractable and agile adversary while capacity constraints on the part of Amisom mean the group still has access to large swathes of territory that is not policed by the Somali government.
And in there sits the dilemma over the future of regional peace and stability. The international community, which is the main financier of Amison, is determined to drawdown on its boots.
On the other hand the Somalia National Army (SNA) is not yet equipped to dive into the deep end of filling the vacuum that will be left by an Amisom withdrawal and an Al Shabaab that is only waiting to spring from its tactical hibernation.
If recent history proves anything, it is the continuing relevance of international co-operation given the trans-boundary and international character of modern day terror networks
Preventing Al-Shabaab from inflicting a heavier toll on the region since the July 2010 twin-bombings in Kampala, illustrates that regional and international co-operation can help beat the terrorists at their game.
The reality, however, is that there is no silver bullet to terrorism and beating Al Shabaab requires that the best of the current approach is maintained while supplementary initiatives are explored. Sharing of intelligence and other tactical assets has helped to avert many would-be deadly incidents.
It is important that the SNA is helped to expand its capacity to fight the terrorists. More importantly, however, Somalia and the region will be safe only when social and economic options for the youth are expanded.
Economies need to be structured to attract investment that generates jobs. Also, progressive democratisation that gives citizens a sense of equity and justice needs to put in place so that the fight against terror is seen for what it is, rather than a racial or social agenda in which particular groups are targeted.